House debates

Wednesday, 4 March 2020


Australian Education Amendment (Direct Measure of Income) Bill 2020; Second Reading

11:37 am

Photo of Tanya PlibersekTanya Plibersek (Sydney, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Education and Training) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Australian Education Amendment (Direct Measure of Income) Bill 2020, and I move:

That all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House notes that the Government has damaged Australia's schooling system by:

(1) neglecting public education;

(2) allowing student results to fall in reading, maths and science; and

(3) failing to develop a long-term education policy for the nation and the economy".

Labor see this as very significant legislation. We have referred this bill to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee to ensure that it receives proper scrutiny because it's very important to get a change of this scale and this significance right.

The bill introduces a new method for calculating a family's capacity to contribute to the cost of their child's education in non-government schools. The changes that are being made would calculate this capacity based on a direct measure of the family's income rather than on the average of the neighbourhood in which a student lives. This reform was originally recommended by the independent National School Resourcing Board, and, before that, the change was recommended in the original Gonski review. It wasn't practical at that time, based on the data that we had, but recent improvements in the Multi-Agency Data Integration Project mean that this moderate measure is now possible.

In principle, of course we support a move to a more accurate and reliable measurement of a school community's capacity to contribute to the cost of education in non-government schools. The new measurement offers a more precise reflection of socioeconomic status and would mean that funding flows more smoothly to the non-government schools that need it the most. For example, under the current area based approach, if a neighbourhood contains both a low-fee and elite independent school both would receive the same socioeconomic status score, even if one takes in students from lower-income families and one takes in students from wealthier families. Under the new arrangement, the lower-income school will receive a lower capacity-to-contribute score, while the wealthier school's score will increase. The wealthier school's capacity-to-contribute score will increase because those higher-income families can obviously afford to make a greater contribution to the cost of their child's private education. As far as it goes, this does mean that funding will be distributed more fairly within non-government schools than the existing arrangements.

When we were last in government, we introduced the Schooling Resource Standard so that there would be an objective measure of the cost of properly educating a child, including loadings for factors like the socio-economic status, remoteness, size of school, number of Indigenous students, disability and English language proficiency of students. That figure for non-government schools is then discounted by a parent's capacity to contribute. Of course, we absolutely believe that school funding should be guided by need. Our efforts in government were designed to make sure that funding was distributed on the basis of need. Of course, that hasn't been the case under this government. Our original approach of sector-blind, needs based funding is paid lip service by those opposite but certainly has not been delivered in reality.

The reason we have moved this second reading amendment is that, while we support the more direct measure of income that is contemplated by this legislation, this legislation continues the government's absolute refusal to properly fund public schools. We have always supported the government restoring some of the funding that was cut from non-government schools, but it should do the same for public schools. There is no reason that they would restore the funding that they've cut from non-government schools but continue the funding cuts to public schools. That's exactly what those opposite have decided to do. For the parents of the 2½ million students in public schools, the schools that educate two-thirds of Australian children, the message from this government is absolutely clear. They are saying: we don't care that your school will never reach its fair funding level.

The coalition has a very warped understanding of student need in this country. Public schools educate 82 per cent of the poorest children in Australia. They teach 84 per cent of First Nations children and 74 per cent of children with disabilities. When it comes to funding decisions and practical support, this government works on the basis that the schools that need the greatest support will get the least. Public schools have never been their priority and, in fact, inequality is written into funding agreements. In the funding deals with the states and territories, the coalition has insisted that the states and territories top-up non-government school funding to 100 per cent of their fair funding level, the Schooling Resource Standard plus loadings, by 2023. But public schools will only ever get to 95 per cent of their fair funding level based on the agreements signed with the states and territories by those opposite.

You look at particularly poor systems like the Northern Territory and Tasmania. The Northern Territory and Tasmania do worst under these arrangements. They do very badly indeed. The states that have the greatest number of children who are struggling educationally and who need the greatest support actually do worst under the coalition's funding arrangements. The government has also included a loophole, a cheat, for the states and territories, where states and territories will be able to include the cost of school transport schemes, depreciation and so on. These costs were never contemplated in the original calculations of the Schooling Resource Standard, because they don't go directly to the cost of educating children. Kids in public schools will do worse again because of the funding agreements signed by those opposite.

In effect, what this means is that by 2023 almost every non-government school will be funded at or above their fair funding level while almost no public schools will be. That's the impact. That's the effect on public schools in all of your electorates. This is what you're doing to them. This is what you're doing to public schoolkids. This is not sector-blind needs based funding; this is 100 per cent sector specific. If you're going to a non-government school, those opposite insist you get 100 per cent or more of your fair funding level. If you're going to a public school you'll never get more than 95 per cent based on the arrangements made by those opposite. That's a very powerful message to the parents of those 2.5 million schoolchildren.

There's another issue that I want to flag with this bill. With this bill we're moving important funding provisions from legislation to regulation. It's just not best practice. This includes the transitional arrangements for schools with capacity to contribute scores that will rise under these changes. The government should not be doing what it's doing here, which is essentially issuing itself a blank cheque to do special deals, to do side deals, particularly without parliamentary oversight. I really don't think this is best practice, and I don't think it's something that should generally be encouraged.

When it comes to schooling, Labor absolutely believes in parental choice and we support the parents. We have fought side by side with parents who send their kids to non-government schools to see this funding restored—funding that's previously been cut by those opposite. But for there to be genuine choice for parents we have to have a properly funded public school system, too—and that's what those opposite consistently refuse to provide. And you really don't have to go too far to see the impact of that in our schools.

In August last year, the ABC published an investigation into Australian schools, looking at the way capital was distributed across the school system—and the disparity that was uncovered by that investigation really was quite shocking. Between 2013 and 2017, half of the total $22 billion spent on school capital improvements in Australia was spent in just 10 per cent of schools. So half the money was spent in one-tenth of the schools—and, as the investigation found, most of the schools were already pretty well-furnished schools with facilities well beyond those of your average public school. At the same time, the ABC found an urgent demand in public schools for the basics—new classrooms, enough classrooms, toilet maintenance, leaking roofs, heating and cooling.

Of course, not every school can have an orchestra pit or a new aquatic centre, but every parent should be confident that their local school, the school closest to home, can provide their child with a great education, a world-class education, and an education as good as any education they can get in an elite school—that there will be enough books, enough computers, enough sporting equipment, and buildings that are built and maintained in a way that shows every child that we value the education that they're receiving at their school and that we care about every child's education equally.

This all comes as Australia experiences a long-term decline in our students' results in reading, in maths and in science. In 2018, according to data from the Program for International Student Assessment—or PISA, as we call it—Australia recorded its worst results in reading, maths and science since that international testing began. For the first time ever, Australia's performance in maths was no better than the global average. In maths, 15-year-olds performed more than a year below those 15-year-olds that were tested in 2002, a year lower in reading than those who were tested in 2000 and a year worse in science than in 2006.

Across all subjects and age groups, right across the board—in government and non-government schools and in every state and territory—our schools are, broadly, going backwards. There are also major disparities within classrooms and schools, with the most advanced students in a year typically five to six years ahead of the least advanced students. We know that children who haven't mastered the basics by the age of eight will struggle to catch up for the rest of their schooling and that early difficulties can result in lifelong problems. What are we doing to fix this? Nothing. This is a government that has no plan to fix this. If we're not fixing these problems in the early years of schooling, we are consigning students to a lifetime of struggle. By these measures we are currently preparing a future workforce that is less equipped for the world of work than the workforce was 20 years ago. We see very worrying implications for our long-term economic growth if our slide in education results continues, with a one per cent change in literacy associated with a 2½ per cent change in labour productivity. We have seen labour productivity sliding in this country for the first time. We can't turn this around. We can't improve our labour productivity unless we're prepared to invest in our people.

The government has no plan to arrest this alarming slide in results and no plan to properly resource our public schools. It's no surprise that the economy its responsible for is in such a dismal state. Wages are stagnant, productivity is static, business investment is down and household debt keeps going up. Labour productivity, as I said, is going backwards for the first time since records began. Economic growth is at its lowest level since the global financial crisis and, in fact, has halved under the Prime Minister's watch. The Liberals have no plan to reverse the shocking drops in student outcomes. They've got no plan to acknowledge the fundamental relationship between education and our economy, and they've got no plan to properly fund public schools. If this government continues its neglect, if it continues to put public education last, we'll continue to see sliding results, more economic malaise, more stagnation and sliding living standards.


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